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IBM’s AI competed against a human in a debate. The results are telling.

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Remember your high school debate club? What happened in downtown San Francisco on Monday night was emphatically not like that.

In a highly unusual public debate attended by hundreds of eager onlookers, IBM pitted a female-voiced AI system, formally known as Project Debater but lovingly nicknamed Miss Debater, against Harish Natarajan, a debate champion who’s racked up more wins than any other person in the world. The goal was to see if an AI can beat a human debate pro.

Well, it turned out it can’t. At least not yet. But that’s okay: The most interesting applications of this debating technology, which has only been in development at IBM for six years, are yet to come.

The topic that Natarajan and Miss Debater argued over was “Should we subsidize preschools?” They each had 15 minutes to prepare. For Natarajan, that manifested as lots of scribbling on a pad of paper. As for the AI, the only sign of “thinking” was three spinning blue circles on the tall black box that is Miss Debater.

But inside the IBM machine, an invisible frenzy of activity was taking place: The AI was scanning 10 billion sentences (literally) in the hundreds of millions of documents to which it had access. After digging through all that information, it churned out a four-minute opening argument, a rebuttal, and a summary.

Miss Debater made a fairly sophisticated case that preschool should be subsidized. It argued that good preschools can help kids coming from underprivileged backgrounds break the cycle of poverty. Strikingly, it also made moral prescriptions, saying things like, “Giving opportunities to the less fortunate should be a moral obligation for any human being.” It wasn’t enough — Natarajan won.

Of course, the AI wasn’t inventing ethical positions of its own and trying to push them on us humans. It was just pulling from statements humans have already made and strategically spitting those back at us. Despite all the hand-wringing out there about the prospect of AI systems becoming our evil overlords, they’re not megalomaniacs, nor are they altruists — they’re just reflections of us in silicon, augmented with some pretty amazing computational power.

Why did the AI lose — and is that a problem?

One of the clever rhetorical tricks Natarajan used was to close the perceived gap between his opponent’s position and his. “First, I’d like to focus on what we agree on. Poverty is terrible,” he said. Then he argued that subsidies are “little more than a politically motivated giveaway to members of the middle class” and that they won’t really be an equalizer because they don’t benefit the most underprivileged.

When both of the debaters concluded their arguments, each audience member was asked to vote on which one they’d found most convincing. The human took the win.

The fact that Miss Debater lost the match-up may have been due in part to the lack of emotion in its delivery. It did display a sense of humor at points — for example, it kicked off the evening by telling Natarajan, “I have heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans, but I suspect you have never debated a machine. Welcome to the future.” The audience laughed on cue.

But if you listen to the full video of the debate, you can hear that Miss Debater’s tone is pretty monotonous. That could make it harder to connect with listeners on a gut level and sway their feelings.

As Carmine Gallo pointed out in a write-up of the event for Forbes, Aristotle — who literally wrote the book on what makes for good rhetoric — insisted you need ethos (character), logos (reason), and pathos (feeling) to be a successful debater. If Aristotle could’ve seen Miss Debater in action, he probably would have said it was lacking in the pathos department.

Still, IBM’s achievement is impressive. Although we’ve already seen AI best human beings at games — chess, Go, and recently even StarCraft — those have clear, finite sets of preordained rules. Raw computational power works great in such cases because it lends itself to making choices among black-and-white options. But natural human discourse doesn’t work that way. As you may recall from high school debate club, it calls for deep nuance.

When you think about things that way, the fact that IBM developed an AI that could even approximate the world-record-holder’s level of skill starts to look more like success than failure.

Miss Debater is going into retirement for now as IBM moves on to developing the technology in more “commercially viable directions,” according to Ranit Aharonov, IBM’s manager for the AI system. For example, Aharonov said, this technology could help journalistic outlets or even governments lead people into nuanced debates about controversial topics that might otherwise get a more superficial treatment.

Hopefully, Monday’s debate will be remembered as a win for human beings — not just because human abilities won out, but because it successfully test-drove a technology with the potential to complement them.

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The Vatican prepares to talk about the sexual abuse of minors; Australia is hit with a cyberattack.


“The Protection of Minors in the Church”


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  • The Vatican prepared Monday for a Thursday meeting called “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” which will address the long and destructive history of sexual abuse of children by officials of the church. Pope Francis and presidents from international bishops’ conferences will gather for four days to meet with abuse survivors and increase transparency. [NYT / Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo]
  • Boston Archbishop Seán O’Malley, one of the few Americans who advise Pope Francis, says the church still lacks a procedure for how to deal with bishops accused of abuse. And addressing those wrongs is only complicated by the fact that most of the cases still waiting for justice occurred decades ago. [Atlantic / Emma Green]
  • The Vatican took decisive action over the weekend against a cleric it had long shielded: ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The former archbishop of Washington became the highest-ranking American cardinal to be defrocked after he was found guilty of abusing minors. McCarrick was made cardinal in 2001, despite the church knowing of accusations against him. [Vox / Amanda Sakuma]
  • On the same day the summit starts, an explosive new book by a French journalist will be released, alleging that the Catholic Church is “one of the biggest gay communities in the world.” In the Closet of the Vatican could be the first reliable account of gay members of the clergy, which has some members of the church worried it could distract from the meeting’s goal: addressing the abuse of minors. [CNN / Daniel Burke]
  • Gay Catholic priests have long been terrified to come out, fearing repercussions from the church, which almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance, and retirement pension. The Times spoke to two dozen anonymously, who said the environment is only getting worse, with homosexuality increasingly being blamed for clergy abuse of young boys. [NYT / Elizabeth Dias]
  • Relations between the Vatican and US church leaders like O’Malley on abuse cases are becoming more and more tense. O’Malley was excluded from organizing this week’s summit on sex abuse, despite his top position on the commission for the protection of minors. The Vatican thinks American leadership is going too far — even in the practice of publishing accused clergy members’ names. [WSJ / Francis X. Rocca]

Australia reckons with a cyberattack

  • An unidentified foreign government is likely responsible for a hack of Australia’s major political parties and its parliament’s computer network, according to a statement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday. [NYT / Jamie Tarabay]
  • The Australian government was already investigating an attack on the parliament that occurred early February when it became aware, 10 days later, that the Liberal, Labor, and National parties had also been breached. [Al Jazeera]
  • Australia’s federal elections are coming up in May, but Morrison assured the country there had not been any electoral interference — even as the Australian Cyber Security Centre admitted it did not know what information had been stolen. [BBC News]
  • “A sophisticated state actor” is the culprit, according to Morrison, and many policy experts are pointing to China or Russia. The attack draws attention to the potential meddling (by at least one of those countries) in the 2016 US elections, and how this could be repeated. [TechCrunch / Jon Russell]
  • It’s also possible the responsible organization tried to mimic China to encourage Australian and foreign officials to point fingers. China has denied any role in the attack. [The Verge / Jon Porter]

Miscellaneous

  • Past presidents like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have earned their place on national monuments — but history has shown that no president was a perfect leader. [NBC News / Ethan Sacks]
  • Public records about the Interior Department could be harder to access if a new rule the department has proposed is adopted. Under the rule, Interior would have more control over what information goes public and could limit how many documents one individual or an organization may view per month. [NPR / Nate Hegyi]
  • President Trump is expected to heighten support for Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela on Monday. Pressure for President Nicolás Maduro to step down is mounting from the US, which has targeted sanctions against Venezuela’s valuable oil industry. [CNN / Jeremy Diamond]
  • Only one of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls is a heterosexual white man. Others may declare, but they all could have trouble accessing in-demand campaign talent and media attention — not to mention widespread support — as women and other minority candidates appeal to voters. [Politico / Bill Scher]
  • Millions of Nigerians were disappointed on Saturday when a last-minute decision delayed national presidential elections. Without an absentee voting system, many Nigerian citizens who had traveled or planned to travel to their home districts had to change plans when they found out they wouldn’t be voting. Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is seeking his second consecutive term. [NYT/ Dionne Searcey and Emmanuel Akinwotu]

Verbatim

“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” [Excerpt from God Help the Child by Toni Morrison, who turns 88 years old today]


Watch this: American segregation, mapped at day and night

We work in diverse places. We live in segregated ones. [YouTube / Alvin Chang]


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